PSG v Lille: Why Blaise Matuidi's Battle v Florent Balmont Decides Ligue 1 Clash
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Sunday's box-office clash between Paris Saint-Germain and 2011 champions Lille at the Parc des Princes pits two sides in differing form against each other. PSG haven't won this fixture since 2009. However, one intriguing battle inside the match that will decide the outcome is the showdown between midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Florent Balmont.
Matuidi comes into the game as a French international with a developing reputation, given his superb performances for Carlo Ancelotti's side so far this season.
Balmont, though, is the brains behind les Dogues' 2011 league and Coupe de France double. Since then, Lille have declined somewhat, but their fluid passing game pioneered by coach Rudi Garcia still exists, and Balmont is a massive part of that.
Balmont was unfortunate to have played for a relatively unfashionable club as a player with no experience of playing for a bigger outfit. That status, combined with a wealth of competition in the centre of the French national team's midfield, deprived the 32-year-old of an overdue first international cap.
That won't be forthcoming now, but Balmont continues to impress with his unerring consistency and ability to control games alongside partner Rio Mavuba.
Last season, the pair played out a dour 0-0 draw, but despite the freezing conditions and disappointing display, Balmont was impressive as he bossed proceedings. The key to winning this game for PSG will be starving him of the ball.
If Balmont doesn't have the ball, Garcia's side will struggle to impose themselves. That's not to say that the veteran is Lille's only threat, but in this sort of match, experience tells you that he will play a bigger role than Mavuba, Dimitri Payet, Nolan Roux, Marvin Martin or Benoit Pedretti.
That means there will be added emphasis on the role of Matuidi—the capital club's most similar player to Balmont.
Whilst the LOSC man is a metronomic presence in the midfield, almost playmaking from deep whilst patrolling the area between Garcia's attackers and the defensive unit, Matuidi has developed into an all-rounder. The 25-year old has started to develop his play going forward (particularly on the left) as well as tightening up his sweeping in the middle of the park. A raw version of Claude Makelele, the great strength of Matudi's game is his work rate.
The former Saint-Etienne man will likely be the PSG player assigned to confront him ahead of the less-experienced Marco Verratti, in the absence of Thiago Motta.
However, if you compare the stats from this season, Matuidi has three goals in 20 league appearances whilst Balmont has one goal and two assists from 18. Whilst PSG's Frenchman contributes less towards the build-up of goals in terms of assists, his importance in making interceptions that lead to goals is vital.
Take les Parisien's opener vs. Toulouse in the cup on Wednesday night, Ezequiel Lavezzi's cross for Kevin Gameiro was only possible because of Matuidi's ball-winning skills. Lille's is less of a goal threat but provides more direct from his passes.
Matuidi then is arguably the more dangerous player of the pair given his prowess in attack, particularly linking up with top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Balmont, though, unfashionable as he is, plays the better passing game, which is part of Garcia and Lille's charm. An unsung talent and massively underrated on the wrong side of 30, Balmont is France's equivalent of Spain and Barcelona's Xavi.
The tussle promises to be exciting, and although Balmont is at a disadvantage given his side's form, don't underestimate LOSC's chances to pull off a result in the capital. Matuidi's energetic presence will force the former Nice player to take control of the midfield battle, but the PSG man will likely get the upper hand over his rival if he can link up with Ancelotti's attacking unit as he has done all season.
The battle arguably would have been more thrilling had it happened during Lille's march to the title two years ago, but the contest still will be exciting to observe. The deciding factor will likely be speed and stamina, with which Matuidi has his opponent beaten. However, a good result in Paris could re-launch les Dogues' European ambitions, so expect a fierce clash.
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